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Issue: April 1, 2011

Zach Snyder's 'Sucker Punch'

By: Trevor Hogg

Originally planned as the follow-up to 300 (2006), the action-fantasy created by Steve Shibuya and Zack Snyder has finally become a reality. Costing $85 million to make, Sucker Punch stars Emily Browning ( The Uninvited), Abbie Cornish ( Bright Star), Jena Malone ( Donnie Darko), Vanessa Hudgens ( Beastly), Jamie Cung ( Dragonball Evolution), Carla Gugino ( Faster), Jon Hamm ( The Town) and Scott Glenn ( The Silence of the Lambs). A young girl (Browning), who is about to be lobotomized at a 1950s insane asylum, attempts to escape with four other inmates (Cornish, Malone, Hudgens, and Chung); their path to freedom leads them into a dreamscape world filled with dragons, samurais, robots, B-52 bombers, and World War I battle trenches.  

Joining forces with Snyder to create the vast imagery was visual effects supervisor John “DJ” DesJardin, who worked with him previously on Watchmen (2009).  “Zack storyboards his own movies from beginning to end,” remarks DesJardin. “He wasn’t able to do it on Sucker Punch because the green light was delayed…so much we had to jump into shooting almost right away.”

A combination of concept art and previz was used to guide the principle photography that took place in Vancouver; adjustments to the footage led to an additional round of CG concept design, which took place during post production. The decisive nature of filmmaker Zack Snyder proved to be a huge asset for DesJardin. “It was easy for me to develop the concept in post and say, ‘Okay, I think this is pretty good.’  Showed it to Zack and he’d be 90 percent, ‘Yeah, that’s it.  Lets change this one little thing. Go.’”

Key to the success of the film was the selection of the visual effects facilities. “MPC Vancouver I had worked with on Watchmen and they were great to work with. They have a really good attitude and were able to do some pretty complex things. I got involved with them very early on to work out the Samurai scene. Guillaume Rocheron came down to LA to Damon Caro’s stunt facility where we did a couple of tests there for the Samurai in June.”  

When the production for Sucker Punch settled in Vancouver, DesJardin and Rocheron were able to do take after take of tests. “The Dragon scene was between a couple of companies,” says DesJardin.  “I know at the time Zack was finishing his CG owl movie [ Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole] with Animal Logic and he was really intent on having them pick up and run with some visual effects tests. I got in touch with Andy Brown and we worked it out that that they could work on that scene. The World War I Scene was done by Pixomondo.  That was actually a suggestion by Chris DeFaria, at the studio, because he had seen their work on Red Baron (2008) and realized that it might dovetail right into with what we were doing.”  

Partnering with Rainer Gombos, a visual effects supervisor at the facility, DesJardin was able to “tweak the Red Baron assets” so to better suit Sucker Punch. For the last section of work an old friend and colleague was called upon. “I needed to have somebody really good with R&D and good production experience to muscle the work through. Terry Clotiaux [from Prime Focus] said, ‘Hey, if Bryan Hirota was over here would you want to do this work with us?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’d do that.  Let’s talk about that.’ I think within a day Bryan was over there and we were off and running. I gave Bryan the Bullet Train/Alien Planet scene, the set extensions, and the environments in the real asylum world.”

“In most movies you’re dealing with one set of aesthetic constraints,” states Bryan Hirota, when explaining the unusual cinematic circumstances for John DesJardin. “He was really working on five movies simultaneously because you have the whole Lennox House stuff to deal with as well.”

Another major challenge for DesJardin was integrating the stunt work, orchestrated by Damon Caro, with all of the digital characters, which would be inheriting the stunt supervisor’s fight choreography.  

“The samurai were one concern because they are about 12-feet tall and Baby Doll [Emily Browning] is 5-feet tall,” says DesJardin.  “The robots on the bullet train were a concern because that was a two-and-a-half-minute shot that we had to make; it was these girls taking out a 100 robots during that time, all one shot. Both of those problems ended up feeding off each other for the solution, but it took months for me to wrap my head around it…The nice thing about Zack is that even though we were shooting, he gave me that time without any doubt at all. There was no, ‘Hey, DJ how’s that coming?’ It was nothing like that. It was just me going up to Zack or Damon and saying, ‘What do you think about this?  What do you think about that?’  Finally, I realized [a solution], that was when I called Bryan Hirota, because he was doing the robot train thing, and I said, ‘This is what I want to test and what do you think about that?’ And Bryan was like, ‘Yes, that makes sense. Let’s go do that.’ We finally shot a meaningful test and showed it to Zack. He loved it. Damon loved it.  [We] showed it to the crew. The crew finally understood what we were going to do and how we were going to put this together. And we went in and did it. The machinations of that were probably the hardest things on the film for me.”

“It started off with a meeting with Zack, where he described his idea; it was based on rudimentary drawings of the kind of action he was thinking about,” states Bryan Hirota, who spent 14 months developing the single two-and-a-half-minute shot, which takes place on the bullet train. “From there, previz was done, where we had some animators go through and animate the shot based on the storyboards Zack had drawn. Once the previz was tweaked enough it went to Damon Caro’s group, the stunt-fight coordinator guys. They took the previz and staged how the hand-to-hand combat with the robots, the weapons, the gunplay and stuff would work.  Then we took that and we edited it together. We figured out…what sections we could actually shoot with a physical camera and where we would need a break to take over in CG…We shot it on two stages simultaneously over the course of a week.  One of the cameras was primarily running 350 frames a second and the other one was mostly 150 frames a second; we shot 36 or 37 separate pieces, which were then delivered to Prime Focus.  Once we had those pieces in Prime Focus, we matched moved all the cameras, we matched moved the girls, we matched moved the robots, and then proceeded to do a master layout where we laid out the sequence so…that the girls and the robots logically travel from one spot, in the two train cars, where they do the battle to the end.  We laid it out on a timeline and figured out where we needed to build the CG break…We were working up the CG bridge within the live action and also doing the robot animation because the stunt action, while a starting point, sometimes necessitated changes.  

“For example, on stage, Baby Doll wouldn’t slice through the robots; we wanted her sword to actually go through the robots’ torso so we would need to adjust the robots and at times replace her sword with a CG one so when she cut, she would really cut them in half.  Once we had this 14-minute high-speed visual shot, we would give it to editorial; they would do speed ramps on top of it so it could go from realtime to slow-mo to realtime. They would give that back to us to match the editorial one.  Once everyone was happy with the animation, the editorial speed ramp, and the feedback loop, we dropped it into a system we developed…compositing [the lighting and the effects] only on the frames that would be actually in the final picture.  We rendered out the two-and-half-minute shot…and then smiled to ourselves on how clever we were when it was done.”

“I had to make a decision in the Samurai scene when Baby Doll is fighting these giant samurai,” reveals John DesJardin when asked to compare the believability of practical and digital effects. “Through her running around inside and the ferocity of the samurai guys fighting her, they end up obliterating the pagoda. It collapses completely on itself.  I knew because of the budget that I couldn’t build it twice…And I knew that I couldn’t build it as a miniature necessarily because I had some pretty complex camera movements inside and outside, and the scales were kind of crazy.  I had to make a decision early on to put all the money into building it as a CG asset complete with the destruction. That isn’t my first instinct to do by the way.  Once I made the commitment, the things that came out of it were cool; we could run simulations on certain things, look at them ahead of time of rendering them to final, and figure out what was working and what wasn’t working.  Delete what wasn’t working and leave in what was.  There you go.  We just choreographed a random event.” 

Carrying on he says, “I still have conversations with other people I work with all the time, like, ‘Was that better or does it lose the natural flow of things?’  You have to remember that even with practical stuff there is an attempt to do that choreography and there is an attempt to control something that’s not very controllable.  We’re not really changing the thought process behind it.  It is just a different toolset to do it with.  As imagery gets better and better in terms of resolution, I think that the gap is narrowing.  It may be an infinitely narrow gap that separates the two. It may always be separate, but for right now I think it is getting harder and harder to make the distinction or the decision about which way to go on stuff like that.”

Mixed with the digital effects in Sucker Punch are a number of practical ones. “We had a lot of on-set explosions, and a lot of dust elements," says DesJardin. “Since Zack is so decisive with Bill Hoy, his editor, they edit along the way as they shoot; we already know a lot of the perspectives we’re going to need.  We can go in and do some pre-target element shoots toward the end of the production cycle. We sound like we’re trying to get rid of reality when we go back to the computer; we actually try to milk the shoot process for everything we can.  Sometimes it doesn’t work.  Sometimes we’ll do experiments.  One experiment I’m really proud of and I probably haven’t even talked about enough, but I will now.  I really wanted to do some underwater explosions; a lot of weird things happen when you explode a thing underwater because there’s a pushback in pressure from the water all around it that makes this contained weird-looking cloud.  That’s the kind of look I wanted for the explosions in the Dragon scene, because these Orcs launch exploding balls into the air and they blowup in the atmosphere and they linger like crazy.”  

To get the desired look, DesJardin collaborated with second unit DP Bill Dalgleish. “Some of that [footage] was taken wholesale and put into the movie; some of it was used to define the look of the CG version that we would make later on, to have a little further control of it. We do a lot of element shooting, a lot of practical stuff.

“You’re making up the rules right there if it’s an original idea,” states DesJardin, who enjoyed collaborating with Zack Snyder to define the various worlds of Sucker Punch.  “It’s much more locked down when you’re adapting a property right.  This is something right out of Zack’s head and it’s his whole story. You can go up to him and say, ‘Hey, you know what when the knights and Orcs are doing this, we’re thinking that the back story is that the Orcs inherited this castle and there’s a dragon there and the dragon kind of lives with them and it doesn’t care about anything.  It doesn’t care about the Orcs or anything.  The Orcs worship it and the knights are afraid of it.’  And Zack is like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool…That’s a good back story.’ We can mess up a battle that’s going on around the castle and mess with what kind of bones you see out in the courtyard. When the dragon flies and it hits the castle, does the dragon care about the castle? No, probably not.  So we do funny things with that.  The Dragon scene has a lot of humor in it because we were able to put a lot of little stupid sight gags in that you probably can’t see when you go see the movie; but if you ever analyze what is going on, you’ll see guys getting killed because it’s funny.”  

Regarding the issue of maintaining a unified look when there were so many VFX companies involved, DesJardin notes, “I don’t know if there’s any one formula, but you kind of know when something is not consistent because it’s going to stick out. Also, we did have the advantage, they’re all pretty unique fantasies; the girls are the only thing that transfers from world to world. Zack had certain stylistic things; some he dictated when shooting, others he put in when doing the DI.”  

The visual effects supervisor adds, “The one sequence that he did very different stylistically was World War I...We shot it with a 60-degree shutter.  It’s very crisp. It’s like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan [1998], and that’s the only fantasy that gets that look.”

“Zack’s collection of cultural zeitgeist,” believes Hirota, will make Sucker Punch a distinct theatrical experience. “That film has a lot of ideas and things that resonate with a lot of different people. The Japanese mech robot in the World War I scene with these giant zeppelins, any fans of graphic novels or anime will be drawn to the giant samurai with the Gatling gun, or the robots with the exploding bullet train or dragon.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a movie with all of these things in it.”  

DesJardin is in agreement. “I think the imagination is unique. Zack is high on pop culture references. It is very clear that he is a fan of all of these things.  He really found a vehicle of his own imaginings that he can put all of these into one movie.  It is a great movie to make a trailer with because it is what every fanboy wants to see in one movie.  It’s all right there.  We’ve had different screenings and I’ve heard some really interesting things like, ‘We can’t wait for Baby Doll to dance in the movie because we know we’re going to see something eye popping.’”  

DesJardin admits, “It was a hard movie.  We kept the price low and the imagery great.”  

Hirota observes, “If you watch a trailer of Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole [2010], that looks like a Zack Snyder movie.  If you see clips of Sucker Punch or you see 300, they all have the same sort of artistic sensibilities.  He is one of the few guys that I can think of that has such a strong artistic fingerprint.”